'Sweetheart relationships' between regulators, utilities helped create Fukushima disaster -- investigator

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster carries a particular warning to China and other nations now rushing to adopt nuclear power, the head of a foundation-sponsored investigation of Japan's tragedy says.

Safety regulation and inspections, disaster preparations, and accident investigations must be an open book, to ensure that high standards are established and maintained, says Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor in chief of the Asahi Shimbun news organization. Funabashi led a review, issued this month, of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident on behalf of the independent Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation.

A summary of the foundation's investigation in the current Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cited failures at every level of responsibility during the crisis, from top executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to leaders of Japan's government and regulatory agencies.

Safety regulation and accident planning were drastically compromised by a disregard for the danger of an extreme tsunami; that's because industry and regulators feared that a focus on the risks would alarm the public and lead to demands for new safety measures, Funabashi and colleague Kay Kitazawa wrote.

"Having great confidence in its technical capabilities, the Japanese nuclear community did not take the need for improvement of safety regulations seriously before Fukushima; there was little accountability, given the unclear jurisdictions, complicated turf wars, and mountains of red tape" among a cluster of regulatory and industry entities, they said.

"This is not to mention the sweetheart relationships and revolving door that connected the regulatory bodies and electric companies, academics and other stakeholders in the nuclear community."

Concerns about 'China's case'

"This is not unique to Japan," Funabashi said in an interview with ClimateWire. "This lesson should be shared and learned by everybody."


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) lists 63 new nuclear power plants under construction around the world in 15 countries, led by China with 26. Some of the countries, like France, have long-standing nuclear power programs. Others -- notably China -- will have to develop effective safety regulation framework at the same time the industry is being created.

"I am particularly worried about China's case," Funabashi said. "China has not been transparent" about its nuclear safety regulation, he said. "Any bad news always brings forth the authority, whose first step is to hide the 'inconvenient truth' from the public. When it comes to a nuclear accident, any government in any country must not hide critical information."

Funabashi said nuclear authorities in Japan "have tended to ostracize divergent views from their community."

"They were very eager to propagate how safe nuclear energy is, and so they actually produced this very twisted myth of absolute safety. At the end of the day, they found themselves trapped in this kind of myth themselves.

"You have to introduce and backfit new innovations and new ways to increase safety into the system. But once you declare that you provide 100 percent, absolute safety, then you are not supposed to [do that] because the very fact that you would introduce a new innovation would be a de facto admission that the current system is not fully safe. This is a trap," he said.

The accident a year ago has led to the re-evaluation of nuclear safety procedures and regulation in the United States, Japan and Europe. The Vienna-based IAEA, which seeks to promote nuclear safety regulation among member countries, upgraded its blueprint for assessing safety hazards at plants following the Fukushima Daiichi accident. It has stepped up peer reviews of member countries' nuclear safety programs, but proposals to put a more proscriptive regime in place have been rebuffed.

Government stopped plant abandonment

Funabashi and Kitazawa cited IAEA's demand in 2007 that Japan clarify the roles of its overlapping regulatory bodies, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC). NSC responded by dismissing the IAEA recommendation and boasting of the quality of Japan's safety oversight.

Funabashi said that both NISA and NSC are discredited. "Certainly the government must establish a new agency. But what kind of regulatory authority must be formed? That matters a lot.

"We have argued strongly that the new one must be completely independent from the utilities, operators and independent from the government and the politics. But how to really put that vision into concrete form requires a lot of serious debate, and a critical review of what went wrong with Fukushima Daiichi.

"The lack of transparency has been a critical part of the whole issue. The public has never been convinced that the operators have been forthcoming on critical information."

Now, Japan's nuclear plant operators must disclose all the results of stress tests on the country's remaining reactors, he said. "Unless and until there is full disclosure of this, they [the public] will not allow the nuclear plants to reopen."

Funabashi said the most startling discovery in the foundation's investigation was the statements that TEPCO top executives had decided to abandon the plant at the peak of the crisis on the night of March 14.

"That prompted [former Prime Minister Naoto Kan] and his team to storm into TEPCO headquarters and tell TEPCO top management that TEPCO would not be allowed to abandon [the plant], but would have to fight to continue to inject water" into the reactors, he said.

Tsunami risk reported week before it happened

Funabashi said his report is based on a series of interviews with Kan, senior government officials and TEPCO managers. But TEPCO top executives would not meet with the foundation's investigators, he said.

A report on the accident this month by James Acton and Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that the crisis was preventable.

The Carnegie report agrees with the foundation's conclusions that TEPCO and NISA did not follow international best practices and safety standards in assessing the threat that a massive tsunami posed to the Fukushima Daiichi complex. "Most importantly, preliminary simulations conducted in 2008 that suggested the tsunami risk to the plant had been seriously underestimated were not followed up and were only reported to NISA on March 7, 2011," the Carnegie report says. The earthquake and tsunami waves struck a week later.

Acton and Hibbs noted that significant differences in nuclear safety regulation persist among nuclear programs in Japan, Europe and the United States. "In general, European regulators appear to have most consistently and expressly required nuclear power plants to undergo expensive engineering modifications to enhance safety."

In the United States, the emphasis is "not to enhance safety but to maintain it," they said. Decisions on costly engineering upgrades most be justified on a cost-benefit basis unless regulators conclude that public safety requires changes.

Since the Fukushima accident, draft amendments to Japan's nuclear safety legislation have been proposed that would allow a new regulatory agency to order upgrades.

"We don't know where India and China and Russia are on the quality of their standards and regulations, because they are a lot more secretive. It is easier to criticize the U.S. and Europe because they have been more transparent." There is reason for the rest of the world to keep its eye on those programs, Acton said.



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